Conestoga Wagon

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EARLY HISTORY OF THE CONESTOGA WAGON

The Conestoga Wagon probably began as a farm wagon that was adapted for use on the rough, hilly ground in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A cover was added to protect the goods inside from the rain. The bottom was bowed in the middle to make it less likely that the material inside the wagon would slide when the wagon went up and down hill, and the wheels were large so the wagon could pass over streams without getting the products inside wet. Also, large wheels meant the wagon could pass over stumps in the roads or large rocks. In those days (early 1800’s) roads were not paved and the Conestoga wagon is a perfect example of how a farm wagon was modified to make it better able to move over the rolling hills, the many streams and the poor roads going west to new territory.

The Conestoga Wagon was made from a variety of woods, each chosen because it had qualities that made it the best wood for the job, some woods were better for the wheels while others were better for the sideboards. The wagon builder would not use fresh cut wood but would use trees he had cut down three or four years earlier, giving the wood time to dry out, age and cure. Cured wood is harder than fresh cut wood.

Conestoga wagons came in various sizes, just like trucks today, some were used on farms, like pick-up trucks and others were the tractor trailers of their time, large, heavy duty wagons hauling goods to Philadelphia and later to the west. The larger of these wagons may have been 14 and 16 feet long and been pulled by 6 large horses. Usually the wheels of the wagons would be painted red while the body of the wagon would be blue, with a canvas top that was white.

The wagon driver would often walk along side the wagon; he could also ride the wheel horse or pull out the lazy board to sit on; there were no real seats on the wagon. The people who used the lazy board ran the risk of being called lazy.

Some of the equipment that was used with a Conestoga Wagon were a feed box to feed the animals, a bucket to water the horses, and an ax to clear the road of any newly fallen trees. There was also a tool box that would allow the driver to make small repairs, grease the wheels of the wagon, and a jack to remove the wheels if necessary.

As they moved down the road, the driver had a long leather line that ran to the lead horse, usually the first horse on the left, and the wagon driver would use this to send directions to his horses. He might also say "haw" to tell the horse to turn to the left or "gee" to tell it to turn to the right.

Since the lead horse was on the left, the wagon driver would walk or ride on the left. This meant that if he needed to pass someone he would pass them on the left and drive on the right side of the road. This is thought to be how the custom of driving on the right hand side of the road began in the United States.

When going down a steep hill or if the wagon began moving too fast the driver could use a chain on the back wheel, called a wheel lock chain, so that it would no longer turn but would begin to slide, slowing down the wagon. He had to make sure the wagon didn't move so fast that it would run into and hurt the horses.

Material courtesy of Lancaster County Pennsylvania Historical Society